Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Alabama Author: Michelle Richmond

A couple of yeas ago, probably at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Michelle Richmond's 2007 novel, The Year of Fog. The cover and story description intrigued me, as did the note in the author blurb that Richmond is "a native of Mobile, Alabama." I recently read the book and figured a blog post is in order.

The Year of Fog was Richmond's second novel, after Dream of the Blue Room (2003). Her first book, published in 2001, was the story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Three more novels have followed: No One You Know, Golden State and The Marriage Pact. She's also published another collection of stories, Hum. 

That second novel was a New York Times bestseller and listed as one of the best books of the year by Library Journal. The book received other accolades as well. I can understand why; the characters and story are compelling and the writing is intense and keeps the narrative moving.

The novel opens with Abby and her fiance's six year-old daughter Emma walking along a foggy beach in San Francisco. Within minutes Emma disappears, and the remainder of the book chronicles the efforts of Abby and fiance Jake to find her. Along the way the reader is introduced to the city and its surfing and other cultures, and the growing estrangement between Abby and Jake. 

We also learn a great deal about Abby's family and youth in Alabama. Like the author she grew up in Mobile, and along with her efforts to remember what happened that fateful day, Abby is also pulled into memories of family trips, Murphy High School, Airport Boulevard and Gulf Shores beaches. She even brings Jake and Emma on a trip to Gulf Shores during happier times.

I won't say any more about the narrative, since it has several surprising twists and turns. I just recommend you read it, and I'll be reading more Richmond in the future.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Dad and Alabama Archaeology

During the early years that my brother Richard and I were growing up in Huntsville, dad [Amos J. Wright, Jr.] worked on two hobbies as time permitted--coin and stamp collecting. Richard collects both to this day. We had a lot of fun with those activities as kids, and learned a bit of history and geography in the process. One fond childhood memory is that bag of coins dad would bring home from the bank on many Fridays. We spent lots of time looking for "Indian" head pennies, buffalo nickels and other goodies. 

In the early 1960's dad became involved in another "hobby" that soon developed into something more. He joined the Alabama Archaeological Society in 1962, just eight years after the organization was founded. This group of mostly "amateurs" and a few professional archaeologists met regularly and published both a newsletter and a scholarly journal. 

Richard, mom and I were soon going along with dad on wintertime Saturday trips to cotton, corn and other fields all over north Alabama and into southern Tennessee looking for artifacts. After getting the owner's permission, the four of us would fan out--often on cold days and tromping through mud--and pick up everything: projectile points, pieces of points, pottery shards, anything that looked like the hand of man had worked it.

We brought home lots of material and now and then some interesting stories unrelated to archaeology. One I remember is the time mom was walking along a corn row for some distance and sensed an animal in the row beside her heading in the same direction. She didn't really pay much attention, thinking it was probably a friendly dog, until she reached the end of the corn row and realized the creature was a skunk!

There was a routine for dealing with the artifacts we carried home. We washed them, of course, and once dry dad would go to work. He labelled each piece we found--large, small or tiny--with three pieces of information: the site code where we found the item as established by the state archaeological society, the month and year, and the initials of the finder. Then he varnished over the info so it wouldn't flake off. Thus we could look at a piece and determine that mom found it in January 1968 at a particular site in Morgan County. The site location code and the fact we picked up everything made all this material more useful to future researchers now that much of it has been donated to the Office of Archaeological Research at Moundville. 

By the time dad died in July 2003, he had made numerous contributions to Alabama archaeology. He served the AAS as  President, Vice-President, Program Chair, and as long-time member of the Board of Trustees. He edited the group's Stones and Bones newsletter from 1977 until 1991 and worked as associate editor before that. The group gave him an Honorary Life membership in 1992. 

His numerous other awards related to state archaeology are noted in one of the memorial articles below. Gov. George Wallace appointed him to the Alabama DeSoto Commission in 1985. That group was charged with making a new attempt to determine the Spanish explorer's route through Alabama.  He also published several scholarly articles related to archaeology in the state, as noted below.

Comments are below some of the images.

Dad's knowledge of computers via his job with the U.S. Army's Ordinance Missle Command at Redstone Arsenal resulted in one of the early articles published on programming applications to projectile point classification. See below for more information on that article. He made several framed cases of arrowheads like the one shown to use when he gave talks at schools and elsewhere. We still have them in the family. It's a nice juxtaposition with that 1968 mainframe computer terminal!

Dad published two books; this one appeared from the University of Alabama Press not long before his death. He spent many years researching it in numerous libraries and archives around the Southeast. 

Dad's first book was published in 2000 and was also the fruit of many research trips. 

These special remembrances of dad were written by his long-time friend Jim Lee and another friend and AAS colleague Bart  Henson and published in the September/October 2003 issue of the Stones and Bones. Mr. Henson tells the story of the Great Winston County Aboriginal Sandstone Quarry Hunt led by my maternal grandfather, the Rev. John M. Shores. I remember that day well; granddaddy thought he could take us right to the location of the rocks with the strange markings. We spent a long time that day wandering around while he tried to recall landmarks near that spot. Dad and Mr. Henson later published an article on the topic; see below. 

Journal covers, first pages and some illustrations from a selection of dad's articles are below. He had mom as a co-author on one of them; she found the artifact!


Wright, Amos J. and Roger Yates. A Ceremonial Pipe. Journal of Alabama Archaeology 15(2): 59062, December 1969

Wright, Amos J. Upper Alabama River Historic Indian Towns and their Inhabitants. Journal of Alabama Archaeology 24(2): 102-117, December 1978

Various book reviews and other items in the Stones and Bones newsletter

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bessie Smith's Alabama Connections

Although she was born in Chattanooga (April 15, 1894, was the date given by her family), the great blues singer Bessie Smith had Alabama connections. Let's investigate.

Smith's father William and mother Laura are listed in the 1870 U.S. Census as living in Lawrence County, Alabama. Five children were also living in the household, including two teenagers, Bloney who was 15 and Fannie, 13. Also listed were Eveline, Gabe and Paralee who were 9, 6 and 4. Both parents and the three younger children were all born in Alabama. Paralee was probably the only one not born a slave The two teenagers were born in Kentucky according to the census. 

Although his occupation was listed as "minister of gospel", William had to work as a farm laborer on the former Owen plantation. Bloney and Fannie were also described as farm laborers. Laura's occupation was given as "keeps house." 

Sometime before Bessie's birth, the family moved to Chattanooga. William died there in November 1899 and Laura in April 1903. By that time 8 children including Bessie made up the family. Two of her brothers died at a young age. Smith's family tree is incredibly complicated; you can see a listing here. All except Bessie, Bloney and Fannie were apparently born in Alabama.

After the parents' deaths, older sister Viola raised the younger siblings. Bessie and brother Andrew became street entertainers to raise money; she sang and danced and he played the guitar. Before long Bessie appeared on the African-American vaudeville circuit. In their book The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville, authors Abbott and Seroff describe her performance on the bill at the Bijou Theater in Bessemer on October 3, 1911. 

Brother Clarence had gone to work with the Moses Stokes travelling troupe and in 1912 arranged an audition for Bessie. Since the troupe already had a great blues singer, Ma Rainey, Bessie was hired as a dancer. 

Bessie's talents soon led to greater things, and by 1923 she was under contract with Columbia Records. Her first recordings were "
Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues". Clarence Williams played piano. The record sold 750,000 copies that year alone. Her recording career continued with great success until the Depression devastated the industry. Smith never stopped performing until her September 1937 death from injuries received in a car wreck in Mississippi. Her grave in Philadelphia remained unmarked until 1970. 

Bessie Smith probably performed in Alabama many times, and no doubt her records sold well in the black communities of the state. A slight change in circumstances might have made her a native as well. 

We can claim the "New Bessie Smith", Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

Photograph taken in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten 

Source: Wikipedia

This stamp was issued on September 1, 1994

This HBO film starring Queen Latifah as Bessie premiered in 2015. I recently watched this biopic and enjoyed it very much. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Finding Alabama in New York State

These AlabamaYesterday wanderings often take me to some state connection far away, and this post is another example. I recently stumbled across the town of Alabama in Genesee County, New York, so let's see what's going on there. 

Incorporated in 1826 as Gerrysville, the area took the name "Alabama" two years later. That 19th century account previously linked claimed that the word means "Here we rest." The place had almost 1900 people counted in the 2010 U.S. Census, a figure that has remained about the same since 1840. According to Wikipedia, "sour" spring water available in the town was bottled as medicine in the 19th century. Two hundred people a day were said to visit the three main springs during their heyday. The Spring House Hotel served visitors until it burned in 1914. Alabama is now located in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

In New York state, towns are a primary municipal corporation operating the main functions of government within each county. There are 932 towns in the state. Each town can have within it boundaries villages and hamlets or some portion thereof. Communities within Alabama include the hamlet of South Alabama and the former hamlet of West Alabama. 

This arrangement produces such businesses as Alabama Archery, Alabama Holley Farm, and the Alabama & Basom United Methodist Church. There is also the Alabama Hotel; their wings were praised by Spiro T. Agnew during a 1968 presidential campaign visit. 

How this town in New York acquired the name of a state only nine years old [eleven if you count the Alabama Territory] remains a mystery. The territory and state were named after the Alabama tribe of Creeks who lived in the southeast until moving into Texas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tribe's name was interpreted to mean "Here we rest" until the 1920's. At that time research by Thomas Owen, director of the Alabama state archives, demonstrated that the word was a combination meaning "vegetation gatherers." 

An 1897 newspaper article "Towns Named after States" listed "Alabama" in New York and Wisconsin. I guess I'll have to investigate Wisconsin next. 

An extensive historical timeline for Alabama Town can be found here.

These businesses are located in Basom, a community in Alabama Town. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Birmingham Photo of the Day (57): East Lake Bathers

Seeing old photographs I always wonder "Where are they now?", or, in examples this old, "Whatever happened to them all?"

The photograph below was taken by Oscar V. Hunt [1882-1964] sometime in the early 1900's. The shot is one of hundreds he took in the Birmingham area over the years; you can see many of them here.

East Lake Park, originally developed as a private facility in 1886 by the East Lake Land Company, became a city park in 1917. The one hundred acres have featured many attractions over the years, including a hotel, golf course, dance pavilion and theater. The lake was created when Roebuck Creek and Village Springs were dammed.

In December 1888 the body of eight year-old May Hawes was found floating in the lake. Her father Richard was tried, convicted and executed for the notorious crimes that also included the murder of her younger sister Irene and his wife Emma. May's spirit is said to haunt the lake

Although taken less than 20 years after that event, these people seem to have no worries about crime. They have probably gathered at the request of the photographer; based on squinting and eye shading, they are looking into the sun. One young man on the lower right is looking down at the water. And what's up with that kid in the front row center? Is he crying or yelling or just making a funny face for the photograph?

In the background a man is heading away from the group, perhaps not wanting to be photographed. Just to the right of the Bath House is a man with his arms outstretched, perhaps seeking attention. Who is the figure in white between him and the Bath House? Two or three other people can be seen in the upper right on the shore also behind the fence. 

There don't seem to be many women in this photo....

Friday, June 9, 2017

On the Shores of Weiss Lake, mid-1960's

Sometime in the mid-1960's my parents and dad's parents bought a lot together on Weiss Lake in Cherokee County. The lake spreads over 30,000 acres in both Alabama and Georgia and was created by Weiss Dam which Alabama Power completed in 1961. The dam and lake are named after a company engineer, Fernand C. Weiss.

At the time there was little development around the lake, and dad and pawpaw proceeded to build a cabin on their property. Since he was retired, pawpaw did much of the work, and dad would go down on weekends to help and bring supplies he purchased. I remember the place as somewhat spartan but comfortable. Younger brother Richard and I had fun exploring the shoreline and surrounding woods.

After a few years the property was sold, and I've never been back. I'm sure the place has changed a lot and probably features the kinds of lakefront development so popular and profitable everywhere. You can see some contemporary photos here.

Below are a few photos taken on one of our trips to Weiss Lake along with some comments. The pictures were probably date 1966 or 1967.

For more information on the dam and lake, see Douglas Scott Wright's book, A History of Weiss Lake [History Press, 2008].

Here I am on the road trip to the lake, looking nerdy!

That seems to be younger brother Richard hanging out on and under the pier .

Here I am with Junior, who belonged to a next door neighbor. He was a very friendly dog.

A nice view of the shoreline

Dad must have joined us for some rock throwing.

Here's mom with Junior

Dad photographed us in a moment of pretended contemplation. That's the cabin in the background. Here you can see not only that cool hat but the cool socks I'm wearing 

Another shot of the cabin with our Chevy station wagon in the background